Socrates: Greek Philosophy – Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I, The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations

Ancient Religions: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian
Religions of India: Brahmanism and Buddhism
Religion of The Greeks and Romans: Classic Mythology
Confucius: Sage and Moralist
Ancient Philosophy: Seeking After Truth
Socrates: Greek Philosophy
Phidias: Greek Art
Literary Genius: The Greek and Roman Classics

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations
John Lord

Topics Covered
Mission of Socrates
Era of his birth; view of his times
His personal appearance and peculiarities
His lofty moral character
His sarcasm and ridicule of opponents
The Sophists
Neglect of his family
His friendship with distinguished people
His philosophic method
His questions and definitions
His contempt of theories
Imperfection of contemporaneous physical science
The Ionian philosophers
Socrates bases truth on consciousness
Uncertainty of physical inquiries in his day
Superiority of moral truth
Happiness, Virtue, Knowledge,–the Socratic trinity
The “daemon” of Socrates
His idea of God and Immortality
Socrates a witness and agent of God
Socrates compared with Buddha and Marcus Aurelius
His resemblance to Christ in life and teachings
Unjust charges of his enemies
His unpopularity
His trial and defence
His audacity
His condemnation
The dignity of his last hours
His easy death
Tardy repentance of the Athenians; statue by Lysippus
Posthumous influence

Socrates: Greek Philosophy

470-399 B.C.

To Socrates the world owes a new method in philosophy and a great example in morals; and it would be difficult to settle whether his influence has been greater as a sage or as a moralist. In either light he is one of the august names of history. He has been venerated for more than two thousand years as a teacher of wisdom, and as a martyr for the truths he taught. He did not commit his precious thoughts to writing; that work was done by his disciples, even as his exalted worth has been published by them, especially by Plato and Xenophon. And if the Greek philosophy did not culminate in him, yet he laid down those principles by which only it could be advanced. As a system-maker, both Plato and Aristotle were greater than he; yet for original genius he was probably their superior, and in important respects he was their master. As a good man, battling with infirmities and temptations and coming off triumphantly, the ancient world has furnished no prouder example.

He was born about 470 or 469 years B.C., and therefore may be said to belong to that brilliant age of Grecian literature and art when Prodicus was teaching rhetoric, and Democritus was speculating about the doctrine of atoms, and Phidias was ornamenting temples, and Alcibiades was giving banquets, and Aristophanes was writing comedies, and Euripides was composing tragedies, and Aspasia was setting fashions, and Cimon was fighting battles, and Pericles was making Athens the centre of Grecian civilization. But he died thirty years after Pericles; so that what is most interesting in his great career took place during and after the Peloponnesian war,–an age still interesting, but not so brilliant as the one which immediately preceded it. It was the age of the Sophists,–those popular but superficial teachers who claimed to be the most advanced of their generation; men who were doubtless accomplished, but were cynical, sceptical, and utilitarian, placing a high estimate on popular favor and an outside life, but very little on pure subjective truth or the wants of the soul. They were paid teachers, and sought pupils from the sons of the rich,–the more eminent of them being Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias, and Prodicus; men who travelled from city to city, exciting great admiration for their rhetorical skill, and really improving the public speaking of popular orators. They also taught science to a limited extent, and it was through them that Athenian youth mainly acquired what little knowledge they had of arithmetic and geometry. In loftiness of character they were not equal to those Ionian philosophers, who, prior to Socrates, in the fifth century B.C., speculated on the great problems of the material universe,–the origin of the world, the nature of matter, and the source of power,–and who, if they did not make discoveries, yet evinced great intellectual force.

It was in this sceptical and irreligious age, when all classes were devoted to pleasure and money-making, but when there was great cultivation, especially in arts, that Socrates arose, whose “appearance,” says Grote, “was a moral phenomenon.”

He was the son of a poor sculptor, and his mother was a midwife. His family was unimportant, although it belonged to an ancient Attic gens. Socrates was rescued from his father’s workshop by a wealthy citizen who perceived his genius, and who educated him at his own expense. He was twenty when he conversed with Parmenides and Zeno; he was twenty-eight when Phidias adorned the Parthenon; he was forty when he fought at Potidaea and rescued Alcibiades. At this period he was most distinguished for his physical strength and endurance,–a brave and patriotic soldier, insensible to heat and cold, and, though temperate in his habits, capable of drinking more wine, without becoming intoxicated, than anybody in Athens. His powerful physique and sensual nature inclined him to self-indulgence, but he early learned to restrain both appetites and passions. His physiognomy was ugly and his person repulsive; he was awkward, obese, and ungainly; his nose was flat, his lips were thick, and his neck large; he rolled his eyes, went barefooted, and wore a dirty old cloak. He spent his time chiefly in the market-place, talking with everybody, old or young, rich or poor,–soldiers, politicians, artisans, or students; visiting even Aspasia, the cultivated, wealthy courtesan, with whom he formed a friendship; so that, although he was very poor,–his whole property being only five minae (about fifty dollars) a year,–it would seem he lived in “good society.”

The ancient Pagans were not so exclusive and aristocratic as the Christians of our day, who are ambitious of social position. Socrates never seemed to think about his social position at all, and uniformly acted as if he were well known and prominent. He was listened to because he was eloquent. His conversation is said to have been charming, and even fascinating. He was an original and ingenious man, different from everybody else, and was therefore what we call “a character.”

But there was nothing austere or gloomy about him. Though lofty in his inquiries, and serious in his mind, he resembled neither a Jewish prophet nor a mediaeval sage in his appearance. He looked rather like a Silenus,–very witty, cheerful, good-natured, jocose, and disposed to make people laugh. He enjoined no austerities or penances. He was very attractive to the young, and tolerant of human infirmities, even when he gave the best advice. He was the most human of teachers. Alcibiades was completely fascinated by his talk, and made good resolutions.

His great peculiarity in conversation was to ask questions,–sometimes to gain information, but oftener to puzzle and raise a laugh. He sought to expose ignorance, when it was pretentious; he made all the quacks and shams appear ridiculous. His irony was tremendous; nobody could stand before his searching and unexpected questions, and he made nearly every one with whom he conversed appear either as a fool or an ignoramus. He asked his questions with great apparent modesty, and thus drew a mesh over his opponents from which they could not extricate themselves. His process was the reductio ad absurdum. Hence he drew upon himself the wrath of the Sophists. He had no intellectual arrogance, since he professed to know nothing himself, although he was conscious of his own intellectual superiority. He was contented to show that others knew no more than he. He had no passion for admiration, no political ambition, no desire for social distinction; and he associated with men not for what they could do for him, but for what he could do for them. Although poor, he charged nothing for his teachings. He seemed to despise riches, since riches could only adorn or pamper the body. He did not live in a cell or a cave or a tub, but among the people, as an apostle. He must have accepted gifts, since his means of living were exceedingly small, even for Athens.

He was very practical, even while he lived above the world, absorbed in lofty contemplations. He was always talking with such as the skin-dressers and leather-dealers, using homely language for his illustrations, and uttering plain truths. Yet he was equally at home with poets and philosophers and statesmen. He did not take much interest in that knowledge which was applied merely to rising in the world. Though plain, practical, and even homely in his conversation, he was not utilitarian. Science had no charm to him, since it was directed to utilitarian ends and was uncertain. His sayings had such a lofty, hidden wisdom that very few people understood him: his utterances seemed either paradoxical, or unintelligible, or sophistical. “To the mentally proud and mentally feeble he was equally a bore.” Most people probably thought him a nuisance, since he was always about with his questions, puzzling some, confuting others, and reproving all,–careless of love or hatred, and contemptuous of all conventionalities. So severely dialectical was he that he seemed to be a hair-splitter. The very Sophists, whose ignorance and pretension he exposed, looked upon him as a quibbler; although there were some–so severely trained was the Grecian mind–who saw the drift of his questions, and admired his skill. Probably there are few educated people in these times who could have understood him any more easily than a modern audience, even of scholars, could take in one of the orations of Demosthenes, although they might laugh at the jokes of the sage, and be impressed with the invectives of the orator.

And yet there were defects in Socrates. He was most provokingly sarcastic; he turned everything to ridicule; he remorselessly punctured every gas-bag he met; he heaped contempt on every snob; he threw stones at every glass house,–and everybody lived in one. He was not quite just to the Sophists, for they did not pretend to teach the higher life, but chiefly rhetoric, which is useful in its way. And if they loved applause and riches, and attached themselves to those whom they could utilize, they were not different from most fashionable teachers in any age. And then Socrates was not very delicate in his tastes. He was too much carried away by the fascinations of Aspasia, when he knew that she was not virtuous,–although it was doubtless her remarkable intellect which most attracted him, not her physical beauty; since in the “Menexenus” (by many ascribed to Plato) he is made to recite at length one of her long orations, and in the “Symposium” he is made to appear absolutely indelicate in his conduct with Alcibiades, and to make what would be abhorrent to us a matter of irony, although there was the severest control of the passions.

To me it has always seemed a strange thing that such an ugly, satirical, provoking man could have won and retained the love of Xanthippe, especially since he was so careless of his dress, and did so little to provide for the wants of the household. I do not wonder that she scolded him, or became very violent in her temper; since, in her worst tirades, he only provokingly laughed at her. A modern Christian woman of society would have left him. But perhaps in Pagan Athens she could not have got a divorce. It is only in these enlightened and progressive times that women desert their husbands when they are tantalizing, or when they do not properly support the family, or spend their time at the clubs or in society,–into which it would seem that Socrates was received, even the best, barefooted and dirty as he was, and for his intellectual gifts alone. Think of such a man being the oracle of a modern salon, either in Paris, London, or New York, with his repulsive appearance, and tantalizing and provoking irony. But in artistic Athens, at one time, he was all the fashion. Everybody liked to hear him talk. Everybody was both amused and instructed. He provoked no envy, since he affected modesty and ignorance, apparently asking his questions for information, and was so meanly clad, and lived in such a poor way. Though he provoked animosities, he had many friends. If his language was sarcastic, his affections were kind. He was always surrounded by the most gifted men of his time. The wealthy Crito constantly attended him; Plato and Xenophon were enthusiastic pupils; even Alcibiades was charmed by his conversation; Apollodorus and Antisthenes rarely quitted his side; Cebes and Simonides came from Thebes to hear him; Isocrates and Aristippus followed in his train; Euclid of Megara sought his society, at the risk of his life; the tyrant Critias, and even the Sophist Protagoras, acknowledged his marvellous power.

Socrates Instructing Alcibiades After the painting by H.F. Schopin

But I cannot linger longer on the man, with his gifts and peculiarities. More important things demand our attention. I propose briefly to show his contributions to philosophy and ethics.

In regard to the first, I will not dwell on his method, which is both subtle and dialectical. We are not Greeks. Yet it was his method which revolutionized philosophy. That was original. He saw this,–that the theories of his day were mere opinions; even the lofty speculations of the Ionian philosophers were dreams, and the teachings of the Sophists were mere words. He despised both dreams and words. Speculations ended in the indefinite and insoluble; words ended in rhetoric. Neither dreams nor words revealed the true, the beautiful, and the good,–which, to his mind, were the only realities, the only sure foundation for a philosophical system.

So he propounded certain questions, which, when answered, produced glaring contradictions, from which disputants shrank. Their conclusions broke down their assumptions. They stood convicted of ignorance, to which all his artful and subtle questions tended, and which it was his aim to prove. He showed that they did not know what they affirmed. He proved that their definitions were wrong or incomplete, since they logically led to contradictions; and he showed that for purposes of disputation the same meaning must always attach to the same word, since in ordinary language terms have different meanings, partly true and partly false, which produce confusion in argument. He would be precise and definite, and use the utmost rigor of language, without which inquirers and disputants would not understand each other. Every definition should include the whole thing, and nothing else; otherwise, people would not know what they were talking about, and would be forced into absurdities.

Thus arose the celebrated “definitions,”–the first step in Greek philosophy,–intending to show what is, and what is not. After demonstrating what is not, Socrates advanced to the demonstration of what is, and thus laid a foundation for certain knowledge: thus he arrived at clear conceptions of justice, friendship, patriotism, courage, and other certitudes, on which truth is based. He wanted only positive truth,–something to build upon,–like Bacon and all great inquirers. Having reached the certain, he would apply it to all the relations of life, and to all kinds of knowledge. Unless knowledge is certain, it is worthless,–there is no foundation to build upon. Uncertain or indefinite knowledge is no knowledge at all; it may be very pretty, or amusing, or ingenious, but no more valuable for philosophical research than poetry or dreams or speculations.

How far the “definitions” of Socrates led to the solution of the great problems of philosophy, in the hands of such dialecticians as Plato and Aristotle, I will not attempt to enter upon here; but this I think I am warranted in saying, that the main object and aim of Socrates, as a teacher of philosophy, were to establish certain elemental truths, concerning which there could be no dispute, and then to reason from them,–since they were not mere assumptions, but certitudes, and certitudes also which appealed to human consciousness, and therefore could not be overthrown. If I were teaching metaphysics, it would be necessary for me to make clear this method,–the questions and definitions by which Socrates is thought to have laid the foundation of true knowledge, and therefore of all healthful advance in philosophy. But for my present purpose I do not care so much what his method was as what his aim was.

The aim of Socrates, then, being to find out and teach what is definite and certain, as a foundation of knowledge,–having cleared away the rubbish of ignorance,–he attached very little importance to what is called physical science. And no wonder, since science in his day was very imperfect. There were not facts enough known on which to base sound inductions: better, deductions from established principles. What is deemed most certain in this age was the most uncertain of all knowledge in his day. Scientific knowledge, truly speaking, there was none. It was all speculation. Democritus might resolve the material universe–the earth, the sun, and the stars–into combinations produced by the motion of atoms. But whence the original atoms, and what force gave to them motion? The proudest philosopher, speculating on the origin of the universe, is convicted of ignorance.

Much, has been said in praise of the Ionian philosophers; and justly, so far as their genius and loftiness of character are considered. But what did they discover? What truths did they arrive at to serve as foundation-stones of science? They were among the greatest intellects of antiquity. But their method was a wrong one. Their philosophy was based on assumptions and speculations, and therefore was worthless, since they settled nothing. Their science was based on inductions which were not reliable, because of a lack of facts. They drew conclusions as to the origin of the universe from material phenomena. Thales, seeing that plants are sustained by dew and rain, concluded that water was the first beginning of things. Anaximenes, seeing that animals die without air, thought that air was the great primal cause. Then Diogenes of Crete, making a fanciful speculation, imparted to air an intellectual energy. Heraclitus of Ephesus substituted fire for air. None of the illustrious Ionians reached anything higher, than that the first cause of all things must be intelligent. The speculations of succeeding philosophers, living in a more material age, all pertained to the world of matter which they could see with their eyes. And in close connection with speculations about matter, the cause of which they could not settle, was indifference to the spiritual nature of man, which they could not see, and all the wants of the soul, and the existence of the future state, where the soul alone was of any account. So atheism, and the disbelief of the existence of the soul after death, characterized that materialism. Without God and without a future, there was no stimulus to virtue and no foundation for anything. They said, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,”–the essence and spirit of all paganism.

Socrates, seeing how unsatisfactory were all physical inquiries, and what evils materialism introduced into society, making the body everything and the soul nothing, turned his attention to the world within, and “for physics substituted morals.” He knew the uncertainty of physical speculation, but believed in the certainty of moral truths. He knew that there was a reality in justice, in friendship, in courage. Like Job, he reposed on consciousness. He turned his attention to what afterwards gave immortality to Descartes. To the scepticism of the Sophists he opposed self-evident truths. He proclaimed the sovereignty of virtue, the universality of moral obligation. “Moral certitude was the platform from which he would survey the universe.” It was the ladder by which he would ascend to the loftiest regions of knowledge and of happiness. “Though he was negative in his means, he was positive in his ends.” He was the first who had glimpses of the true mission of philosophy,–even to sit in judgment on all knowledge, whether it pertains to art, or politics, or science; eliminating the false and retaining the true. It was his mission to separate truth from error. He taught the world how to weigh evidence. He would discard any doctrine which, logically carried out, led to absurdity. Instead of turning his attention to outward phenomena, he dwelt on the truths which either God or consciousness reveals. Instead of the creation, he dwelt on the Creator. It was not the body he cared for so much as the soul. Not wealth, not power, not the appetites were the true source of pleasure, but the peace and harmony of the soul. The inquiry should be, not what we shall eat, but how shall we resist temptation; how shall we keep the soul pure; how shall we arrive at virtue; how shall we best serve our country; how shall we best educate our children; how shall we expel worldliness and deceit and lies; how shall we walk with God?–for there is a God, and there is immortality and eternal justice: these are the great certitudes of human life, and it is only by these that the soul will expand and be happy forever.

Thus there was a close connection between his philosophy and his ethics. But it was as a moral teacher that he won his most enduring fame. The teacher of wisdom became subordinate to the man who lived it. As a living Christian is nobler than merely an acute theologian, so he who practises virtue is greater than the one who preaches it. The dissection of the passions is not so difficult as the regulation of the passions. The moral force of the soul is superior to the utmost grasp of the intellect. The “Thoughts” of Pascal are all the more read because the religious life of Pascal is known to have been lofty. Augustine was the oracle of the Middle Ages, from the radiance of his character as much as from the brilliancy and originality of his intellect. Bernard swayed society more by his sanctity than by his learning. The useful life of Socrates was devoted not merely to establish the grounds of moral obligation, in opposition to the false and worldly teaching of his day, but to the practice of temperance, disinterestedness, and patriotism. He found that the ideas of his contemporaries centred in the pleasure of the body: he would make his body subservient to the welfare of the soul. No writer of antiquity says so much of the soul as Plato, his chosen disciple, and no other one placed so much value on pure subjective knowledge. His longings after love were scarcely exceeded by Augustine or St. Theresa,–not for a divine Spouse, but for the harmony of the soul. With longings after love were, united longings after immortality, when the mind would revel forever in the contemplation of eternal ideas and the solution of mysteries,–a sort of Dantean heaven. Virtue became the foundation of happiness, and almost a synonym for knowledge. He discoursed on knowledge in its connection with virtue, after the fashion of Solomon in his Proverbs. Happiness, virtue, knowledge: this was the Socratic trinity, the three indissolubly connected together, and forming the life of the soul,–the only precious thing a man has, since it is immortal, and therefore to be guarded beyond all bodily and mundane interests. But human nature is frail. The soul is fettered and bewildered; hence the need of some outside influence, some illumination, to guard, or to restrain, or guide. “This inspiration, he was persuaded, was imparted to him from time to time, as he had need, by the monitions of an internal voice which he called [Greek: daimonion], or daemon,–not a personification, like an angel or devil, but a divine sign or supernatural voice.” From youth he was accustomed to obey this prohibitory voice, and to speak of it,–a voice “which forbade him to enter on public life,” or to take any thought for a prepared defence on his trial. The Fathers of the Church regarded this daemon as a devil, probably from the name; but it is not far, in its real meaning, from the “divine grace” of St. Augustine and of all men famed for Christian experience,–that restraining grace which keeps good men from folly or sin.

Socrates, again, divorced happiness from pleasure,–identical things, with most pagans. Happiness is the peace and harmony of the soul; pleasure comes from animal sensations, or the gratification of worldly and ambitious desires, and therefore is often demoralizing. Happiness is an elevated joy,–a beatitude, existing with pain and disease, when the soul is triumphant over the body; while pleasure is transient, and comes from what is perishable. Hence but little account should be made of pain and suffering, or even of death. The life is more than meat, and virtue is its own reward. There is no reward of virtue in mere outward and worldly prosperity; and, with virtue, there is no evil in adversity. One must do right because it is right, not because it is expedient: he must do right, whatever advantages may appear by not doing it. A good citizen must obey the laws, because they are laws: he may not violate them because temporal and immediate advantages are promised. A wise man, and therefore a good man, will be temperate. He must neither eat nor drink to excess. But temperance is not abstinence. Socrates not only enjoined temperance as a great virtue, but he practised it. He was a model of sobriety, and yet he drank wine at feasts,–at those glorious symposia where he discoursed with his friends on the highest themes. While he controlled both appetites and passions, in order to promote true happiness,–that is, the welfare of the soul,–he was not solicitous, as others were, for outward prosperity, which could not extend beyond mortal life. He would show, by teaching and example, that he valued future good beyond any transient joy. Hence he accepted poverty and physical discomfort as very trifling evils. He did not lacerate the body, like Brahmans and monks, to make the soul independent of it. He was a Greek, and a practical man,–anything but visionary,–and regarded the body as a sacred temple of the soul, to be kept beautiful; for beauty is as much an eternal idea as friendship or love. Hence he threw no contempt on art, since art is based on beauty. He approved of athletic exercises, which strengthened and beautified the body; but he would not defile the body or weaken it, either by lusts or austerities. Passions were not to be exterminated but controlled; and controlled by reason, the light within us,–that which guides to true knowledge, and hence to virtue, and hence to happiness. The law of temperance, therefore, is self-control.

Courage was another of his certitudes,–that which animated the soldier on the battlefield with patriotic glow and lofty self-sacrifice. Life is subordinate to patriotism. It was of but little consequence whether a man died or not, in the discharge of duty. To do right was the main thing, because it was right. “Like George Fox, he would do right if the world were blotted out.”

The weak point, to my mind, in the Socratic philosophy, considered in its ethical bearings, was the confounding of virtue with knowledge, and making them identical. Socrates could probably have explained this difficulty away, for no one more than he appreciated the tyranny of passion and appetite, which thus fettered the will; according to St. Paul, “The evil that I would not, that I do.” Men often commit sin when the consequences of it and the nature of it press upon the mind. The knowledge of good and evil does not always restrain a man from doing what he knows will end in grief and shame. The restraint comes, not from knowledge, but from divine aid, which was probably what Socrates meant by his daemon,–a warning and a constraining power.

“Est Deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo.”

But this is not exactly the knowledge which Socrates meant, or Solomon. Alcibiades was taught to see the loveliness of virtue and to admire it; but he had not the divine and restraining power, which Socrates called an “inspiration,” and others would call “grace.” Yet Socrates himself, with passions and appetites as great as Alcibiades, restrained them,–was assisted to do so by that divine Power which he recognized, and probably adored. How far he felt his personal responsibility to this Power I do not know. The sense of personal responsibility to God is one of the highest manifestations of Christian life, and implies a recognition of God as a personality, as a moral governor whose eye is everywhere, and whose commands are absolute. Many have a vague idea of Providence as pervading and ruling the universe, without a sense of personal responsibility to Him; in other words, without a “fear” of Him, such as Moses taught, and which is represented by David as “the beginning of wisdom,”–the fear to do wrong, not only because it is wrong, but also because it is displeasing to Him who can both punish and reward. I do not believe that Socrates had this idea of God; but I do believe that he recognized His existence and providence. Most people in Greece and Rome had religious instincts, and believed in supernatural forces, who exercised an influence over their destiny,–although they called them “gods,” or divinities, and not the “God Almighty” whom Moses taught. The existence of temples, the offices of priests, and the consultation of oracles and soothsayers, all point to this. And the people not only believed in the existence of these supernatural powers, to whom they erected temples and statues, but many of them believed in a future state of rewards and punishments,–otherwise the names of Minos and Rhadamanthus and other judges of the dead are unintelligible. Paganism and mythology did not deny the existence and power of gods,–yea, the immortal gods; they only multiplied their number, representing them as avenging deities with human passions and frailties, and offering to them gross and superstitious rites of worship. They had imperfect and even degrading ideas of the gods, but acknowledged their existence and their power. Socrates emancipated himself from these degrading superstitions, and had a loftier idea of God than the people, or he would not have been accused of impiety,–that is, a dissent from the popular belief; although there is one thing which I cannot understand in his life, and cannot harmonize with his general teachings,–that in his last hours his last act was to command the sacrifice of a cock to Aesculapius.

But whatever may have been his precise and definite ideas of God and immortality, it is clear that he soared beyond his contemporaries in his conceptions of Providence and of duty. He was a reformer and a missionary, preaching a higher morality and revealing loftier truths than any other person that we know of in pagan antiquity; although there lived in India, about two hundred years before his day, a sage whom they called Buddha, whom some modern scholars think approached nearer to Christ than did Socrates or Marcus Aurelius. Very possibly. Have we any reason to adduce that God has ever been without his witnesses on earth, or ever will be? Why could he not have imparted wisdom both to Buddha and Socrates, as he did to Abraham, Moses, and Paul? I look upon Socrates as one of the witnesses and agents of Almighty power on this earth to proclaim exalted truth and turn people from wickedness. He himself–not indistinctly–claimed this mission.

Think what a man he was: truly was he a “moral phenomenon.” You see a man of strong animal propensities, but with a lofty soul, appearing in a wicked and materialistic–and possibly atheistic–age, overturning all previous systems of philosophy, and inculcating a new and higher law of morals. You see him spending his whole life,–and a long life,–in disinterested teachings and labors; teaching without pay, attaching himself to youth, working in poverty and discomfort, indifferent to wealth and honor, and even power, inculcating incessantly the worth and dignity of the soul, and its amazing and incalculable superiority to all the pleasures of the body and all the rewards of a worldly life. Who gave to him this wisdom and this almost superhuman virtue? Who gave to him this insight into the fundamental principles of morality? Who, in this respect, made him a greater light and a clearer expounder than the Christian Paley? Who made him, in all spiritual discernment, a wiser man than the gifted John Stuart Mill, who seems to have been a candid searcher after truth? In the wisdom of Socrates you see some higher force than intellectual hardihood or intellectual clearness. How much this pagan did to emancipate and elevate the soul! How much he did to present the vanities and pursuits of worldly men in their true light! What a rebuke were his life and doctrines to the Epicureanism which was pervading all classes of society, and preparing the way for ruin! Who cannot see in him a forerunner of that greater Teacher who was the friend of publicans and sinners; who rejected the leaven of the Pharisees and the speculations of the Sadducees; who scorned the riches and glories of the world; who rebuked everything pretentious and arrogant; who enjoined humility and self-abnegation; who exposed the ignorance and sophistries of ordinary teachers; and who propounded to his disciples no such “miserable interrogatory” as “Who shall show us any good?” but a higher question for their solution and that of all pleasure-seeking and money-hunting people to the end of time,–“What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

It very rarely happens that a great benefactor escapes persecution, especially if he is persistent in denouncing false opinions which are popular, or prevailing follies and sins. As the Scribes and Pharisees, who had been so severely and openly exposed in all their hypocrisies by our Lord, took the lead in causing his crucifixion, so the Sophists and tyrants of Athens headed the fanatical persecution of Socrates because he exposed their shallowness and worldliness, and stung them to the quick by his sarcasms and ridicule. His elevated morality and lofty spiritual life do not alone account for the persecution. If he had let persons alone, and had not ridiculed their opinions and pretensions, they would probably have let him alone. Galileo aroused the wrath of the Inquisition not for his scientific discoveries, but because he ridiculed the Dominican and Jesuit guardians of the philosophy of the Middle Ages, and because he seemed to undermine the authority of the Scriptures and of the Church: his boldness, his sarcasms, and his mocking spirit were more offensive than his doctrines. The Church did not persecute Kepler or Pascal. The Athenians may have condemned Xenophanes and Anaxagoras, yet not the other Ionian philosophers, nor the lofty speculations of Plato; but they murdered Socrates because they hated him. It was not pleasant to the gay leaders of Athenian society to hear the utter vanity of their worldly lives painted with such unsparing severity, nor was it pleasant to the Sophists and rhetoricians to see their idols overthrown, and they themselves exposed as false teachers and shallow pretenders. No one likes to see himself held up to scorn and mockery; nobody is willing to be shown up as ignorant and conceited. The people of Athens did not like to see their gods ridiculed, for the logical sequence of the teachings of Socrates was to undermine the popular religion. It was very offensive to rich and worldly people to be told that their riches and pleasures were transient and worthless. It was impossible that those rhetoricians who gloried in words, those Sophists who covered up the truth, those pedants who prided themselves on their technicalities, those politicians who lived by corruption, those worldly fathers who thought only of pushing the fortunes of their children, should not see in Socrates their uncompromising foe; and when he added mockery and ridicule to contempt, and piqued their vanity, and offended their pride, they bitterly hated him and wished him out of the way. My wonder is that he should have been tolerated until he was seventy years of age. Men less offensive than he have been burned alive, and stoned to death, and tortured on the rack, and devoured by lions in the amphitheatre. It is the fate of prophets to be exiled, or slandered, or jeered at, or stigmatized, or banished from society,–to be subjected to some sort of persecution; but when prophets denounce woes, and utter invectives, and provoke by stinging sarcasms, they have generally been killed. No matter how enlightened society is, or tolerant the age, he who utters offensive truths will be disliked, and in some way punished.

So Socrates must meet the fate of all benefactors who make themselves disliked and hated. First the great comic poet Aristophanes, in his comedy called the “Clouds,” held him up to ridicule and reproach, and thus prepared the way for his arraignment and trial. He is made to utter a thousand impieties and impertinences. He is made to talk like a man of the greatest vanity and conceit, and to throw contempt and scorn on everybody else. It is not probable that the poet entered into any formal conspiracy against him, but found him a good subject of raillery and mockery, since Socrates was then very unpopular, aside from his moral teachings, for being declared by the oracle of Delphi the wisest man in the world, and for having been intimate with the two men whom the Athenians above all men justly execrated,–Critias, the chief of the Thirty Tyrants whom Lysander had imposed, or at least consented to, after the Peloponnesian war; and Alcibiades, whose evil counsels had led to an unfortunate expedition, and who in addition had proved himself a traitor to his country.

Socrates From the bust in the National Museum, Naples

Public opinion being now against him, on various grounds he is brought to trial before the Dikastery,–a board of some five hundred judges, leading citizens of Athens. One of his chief accusers was Anytus,–a rich tradesman, of very narrow mind, personally hostile to Socrates because of the influence the philosopher had exerted over his son, yet who then had considerable influence from the active part he had taken in the expulsion of the Thirty Tyrants. The more formidable accuser was Meletus,–a poet and a rhetorician, who had been irritated by Socrates’ terrible cross-examinations. The principal charges against him were, that he did not admit the gods acknowledged by the republic, and that he corrupted the youth of Athens.

In regard to the first charge, it could not be technically proved that he had assailed the gods, for he was exact in his legal worship; but really and virtually there was some foundation for the accusation, since Socrates was a religious innovator if ever there was one. His lofty realism was subversive of popular superstitions, when logically carried out. As to the second charge, of corrupting youth, this was utterly groundless; for he had uniformly enjoined courage, and temperance, and obedience to the laws, and patriotism, and the control of the passions, and all the higher sentiments of the soul But the tendency of his teachings was to create in young men contempt for all institutions based on falsehood or superstition or tyranny, and he openly disapproved some of the existing laws,–such as choosing magistrates by lot,–and freely expressed his opinions. In a narrow and technical sense there was some reason for this charge; for if a young man came to combat his father’s business or habits of life or general opinions, in consequence of his own superior enlightenment, it might be made out that he had not sufficient respect for his father, and thus was failing in the virtues of reverence and filial obedience.

Considering the genius and innocence of the accused, he did not make an able defence; he might have done better. It appeared as if he did not wish to be acquitted. He took no thought of what he should say; he made no preparation for so great an occasion. He made no appeal to the passions and feelings of his judges. He refused the assistance of Lysias, the greatest orator of the day. He brought neither his wife nor children to incline the judges in his favor by their sighs and tears. His discourse was manly, bold, noble, dignified, but without passion and without art. His unpremeditated replies seemed to scorn an elaborate defence. He even seemed to rebuke his judges, rather than to conciliate them. On the culprit’s bench he assumed the manners of a teacher. He might easily have saved himself, for there was but a small majority (only five or six at the first vote) for his condemnation. And then he irritated his judges unnecessarily. According to the laws he had the privilege of proposing a substitution for his punishment, which would have been accepted,–exile for instance; but, with a provoking and yet amusing irony, he asked to be supported at the public expense in the Prytaneum: that is, he asked for the highest honor of the republic. For a condemned criminal to ask this was audacity and defiance.

We cannot otherwise suppose than that he did not wish to be acquitted. He wished to die. The time had come; he had fulfilled his mission; he was old and poor; his condemnation would bring his truths before the world in a more impressive form. He knew the moral greatness of a martyr’s death. He reposed in the calm consciousness of having rendered great services, of having made important revelations. He never had an ignoble love of life; death had no terrors to him at any time. So he was perfectly resigned to his fate. Most willingly he accepted the penalty of plain speaking, and presented no serious remonstrances and no indignant denials. Had he pleaded eloquently for his life, he would not have fulfilled his mission. He acted with amazing foresight; he took the only course which would secure a lasting influence. He knew that his death would evoke a new spirit of inquiry, which would spread over the civilized world. It was a public disappointment that he did not defend himself with more earnestness. But he was not seeking applause for his genius,–simply the final triumph of his cause, best secured by martyrdom.

So he received his sentence with evident satisfaction; and in the interval between it and his execution he spent his time in cheerful but lofty conversations with his disciples. He unhesitatingly refused to escape from his prison when the means would have been provided. His last hours were of immortal beauty. His friends were dissolved in tears, but he was calm, composed, triumphant; and when he lay down to die he prayed that his migration to the unknown land might be propitious. He died without pain, as the hemlock produced only torpor.

His death, as may well be supposed, created a profound impression. It was one of the most memorable events of the pagan world, whose greatest light was extinguished,–no, not extinguished, since it has been shining ever since in the “Memorabilia” of Xenophon and the “Dialogues” of Plato. Too late the Athenians repented of their injustice and cruelty. They erected to his memory a brazen statue, executed by Lysippus. His character and his ideas are alike immortal. The schools of Athens properly date from his death, about the year 400 B.C., and these schools redeemed the shame of her loss of political power. The Socratic philosophy, as expounded by Plato, survived the wrecks of material greatness. It entered even into the Christian schools, especially at Alexandria; it has ever assisted and animated the earnest searchers after the certitudes of life; it has permeated the intellectual world, and found admirers and expounders in all the universities of Europe and America. “No man has ever been found,” says Grote, “strong enough to bend the bow of Socrates, the father of philosophy, the most original thinker of antiquity.” His teachings gave an immense impulse to civilization, but they could not reform or save the world; it was too deeply sunk in the infamies and immoralities of an Epicurean life. Nor was his philosophy ever popular in any age of our world. It never will be popular until the light which men hate shall expel the darkness which they love. But it has been the comfort and the joy of an esoteric few,–the witnesses of truth whom God chooses, to keep alive the virtues and the ideas which shall ultimately triumph over all the forces of evil.


The direct sources are chiefly Plato (Jowett’s translation) and Xenophon. Indirect sources: chiefly Aristotle, Metaphysics; Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Philosophers; Grote’s History of Greece; Brandis’s Plato, in Smith’s Dictionary; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Representative Men; Cicero on Immortality; J. Martineau, Essay on Plato; Thirlwall’s History of Greece. See also the late work of Curtius; Ritter’s History of Philosophy; F.D. Maurice’s History of Moral Philosophy; G. H. Lewes’ Biographical History of Philosophy; Hampden’s Fathers of Greek Philosophy; J.S. Blackie’s Wise Men of Greece; Starr King’s Lecture on Socrates; Smith’s Biographical Dictionary; Ueberweg’s History of Philosophy; W.A. Butler’s History of Ancient Philosophy; Grote’s Aristotle.

Phidias: Greek Art

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations